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John Hollenhorst reporting The National Park Service has just revealed a discovery made at Lake Powell more than a year ago, and they're still keeping the location secret.
It's an engraving evidently made in 1776, the earliest known record in Utah of a visit by non-Indians. Eyewitness News was the first to visit the scene.
Park Service officials kept the discovery quiet while they spent the last year getting the engraving authenticated scientifically. Now, they're virtually certain it was made in 1776 by an expedition led by two famous Spanish padres, Fathers Dominguez and Escalante.
The discovery was made near Padre Bay, named for two Spanish priests. Fathers Domingues and Escalante crossed the Colorado River there two centuries before Lake Powell was created. Their expedition was reenacted in 1976, on the 200th anniversary.
In a narrow gulch is the first physical evidence ever found of their passage: Mixed in with modern graffiti from Lake Powell boaters is a message 231 years old.
The inscription reads "Paso Por Aqui," or "I pass by here in 1776." It is almost swamped by modern copycats. "It's unfortunate that people come here and feel compelled to do that," Kevin Schneider, of the National Park Service, said.
The old writing was noticed last year by a volunteer graffiti removal crew. Robin Mueller and Jim Page suspected the old script was authentic.
Since then, scientists scanned it with lasers. They also analyzed deposits of natural desert varnish and lead from the polluted air of the Industrial Revolution. "And both of those methods showed the inscription predated the 20th century, certainly, and probably was 200 to 300 years old, which puts it right in the range of 1776," Schneider explained.
History buffs now can guess what happened on November 6, 1776. The Spanish padres were returning to Santa Fe after failing to find a new route to the Pacific Ocean. Lost in a maze of canyons, they were cold, exhausted and so starved they were eating their horses. Their journal says a fierce storm blasted them with snow and rain.
"I don't think any of them were sure they were going to make it back," Paul Ostapuk, of the Old Spanish Trail Association, said.
They took shelter from the raging storm, possibly in this alcove, and said the "litany of the virgin" or "Lord have mercy on us." They prayed, "Christ have mercy."
Perhaps the sun came out, giving hope and a reason to scrawl a message. The next day they rode off across the river into history. "And also maybe they were leaving their mark in case they never made it back home," Ostapuk said.
They did make it home, becoming Utah's equivalent of Lewis & Clark. The Park Service hopes to add the inscription to the National Register of Historic Places, but it's keeping the location secret to avoid further damage.